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Flipped Out on Learning

An active learning classroom

Christopher Kim, right, teaches a supplemental instruction course for Physics 151 in an active learning classroom.

Illustration of a classroom flipped upside down.

Fall 2013 Beach Review cover. Illustraton by Jorge Hurtado, photograph by David J. Nelson.

“Don’t write on the wall!” our parents would yell.

“Don’t talk in class!” our schoolteachers would scold.

But nowadays, an increasing number of Cal State Long Beach faculty insist that their students do those very things. “And by the way, you need to watch the lecture videos on my BeachBoard site before the next class meeting,” even more faculty say.

Although lectures remain a classroom mainstay, technology has unleashed a whole new world of teaching and learning with new terms like smart classrooms, active learning and flipping courses.

But as educators, government officials, students and their families are discovering, technology is just a tool in rethinking modern education, and along with it come pros and cons.

Let’s Get Together

Pooja-Accamma Somaiah ponders a physics equation in a CSULB smart classroom.

Pooja-Accamma Somaiah ponders a physics equation in a CSULB smart classroom.

“Twenty-first century learners, also known as the millennial students, are engaged in learning in different ways than students of the past,” said Leslie Kennedy, director of Instructional Technology Support Services, which oversees CSULB’s BeachBoard online e-learning site and other course-related technologies. “Research from MIT, University of Minnesota, etc., show that students do better in the more active learning environments, so we are exploring different ways to provide that engaging experience for the students.”

Many educational institutions including CSULB are following some of the recommendations from the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit organization focused on how technology can improve student learning and reduce educational costs.

In active learning, students are much more engaged in inquiry-based or problem-based group work supplemented by technology that increasingly is taking place in a redesigned “active learning” classroom, Kennedy explained. CSULB currently has four active learning classrooms, with more to come as the Liberal Arts buildings are refurbished.

Depending on the room’s size, its primary components are walls or even tables covered in IdeaPaint that can be written on with dry erase markers, plus one or more big-screen TVs or a projection system connected to a faculty workstation. Students sit in groups where they view questions or problems on multiple screens, collaborate among themselves, then write their group’s collective answers on the wall, on websites or in Google Docs for the class to see.

Physics Professor Galen Pickett quickly embraced smart classrooms, where he teaches several classes. “I’m using each one of the active (video) panels to replicate the handwritten notes that are on my tablet here so that everyone has the experience of me looking over their shoulders in a small group, and doing calculations in the way the people who taught me, taught me. I was taught in small groups with a chalkboard, not in small classrooms.”

It also mimics the real world, he noted. “This is the way engineering and science groups function when they’re designing or testing products. They don’t have the senior vice president coming into the room and giving a lecture and they all go to their individual workspace.

“The technology doesn’t necessarily make my job easier, but it gives me functionality that I could have if I had just one or two people talking to me,” he said. “The way this room is set up is really key to how this works. No one can hide; everyone is visible all the time and can show everyone else their work by writing on these walls.”

Smart classrooms are a hit with students, too. Physics major Jaylen Wimbish first experienced one last spring, and now in Pickett’s class, he’s a believer. “It’s really cool. It’s more group oriented. It actually has us think together and we bounce different ideas off each other, and we get to a new understanding of the material. I prefer that over individual learning.”

Rachael Yarbrough agrees. As a physics major and teaching associate, “From a student perspective, it really helps me because I get to work with the other students in the classroom to help me learn. I’ve also seen from the teaching perspective for the supplemental instruction class for Physics 100A that I teach. They can get together and work through problems with each other, and it can be so much more beneficial for them to explain it to each other in their groups and on the walls than for me to try to explain it to them.”

This type of learning is spreading, Kennedy said. For example, History Department Chair Nancy Quam-Wickham is collaborating with Long Beach Unified School District to share exceptional history projects created by CSULB students in active learning classrooms.

Flipping at The Beach

It isn’t acrobatics, but a new way of delivering coursework, said Terre Allen, director of CSULB’s Faculty Center for Professional Development and professor of communications studies.

“People lectured for an hour-and-a-half because that was the amount of time they were given. Technology allows us to do it in a better way, and certainly a better way is to provide students with shorter, more focused micro-lectures and quizzes that can be delivered online over the entire week.” Classroom time is then devoted toward group interaction and problem solving.

Allen meets with faculty and offers online and in-person classes, including one called Flipping at The Beach, that demonstrate different teaching modes and how to adapt them for their classes. But, “My favorite saying is, ‘A poorly designed course is a poorly designed course, whether it’s face-to-face or online.’ What we need to teach people is how to be a good instructional designer.”

Opportunities and Challenges

Today’s students who live with smartphones practically glued to their hands, backed up with electronic tablets or laptops, often use more than one device at a time and expect 24/7 access to the CSULB website from anywhere.

But supporting a robust, up-to-date infrastructure is expensive and time-consuming.

“In the last few years of deep budget reductions, CSULB has not had resources to provide adequate support for technology,” said CSULB Interim President Donald J. Para, but now the CSU system and Cal State Long Beach are investing in campus technology upgrades.

The idea of using massive open online courses (MOOCs) to help more students move through college faster still faces some challenges, so a CSU Statewide Academic Senate subcommittee is examining how best to incorporate MOOCs and other online education initiatives into Cal State campuses.

Nevertheless, both technology and brick-and-mortar campuses are here to stay.
“Technology is just a tool, and we have to be more mindful of what it can and can’t do, and what it can and can’t replace. The reason most students want to go to college is because they desire that relational learning,” between faculty and students, Allen said.

“I always ask my students, ‘What is the one thing you came here for?’—and they overwhelmingly say the same thing—‘For the college experience.’ It’s where you date and mate and be in an environment where you find a whole lot of people your same age with your same set of goals and interests.”